I’ve been following some of the thinking concerning the future of business in this country. By that I don’t mean the unemployment issues because it seems to me as Chris Matthews said one night there seems to be a disconnect between work and the compensation we receive for doing that work. I mean how businesses create more efficient and effective ways of doing the work businesses have decided needs to be done. One of the trends seems to be a focus on games and turning work into “play.” There are several TED talks on the subject, one of the speakers even suggesting that the Game platform is what’s next after the current Social platform matures.
When I was on the faculty at the University of Virginia, several students from the business school asked me to participate in a project they were doing. It was an assignment they’d been given by one of the leading consulting firms from the Northeast. Big name. Big opportunity for these students. The consulting company was interested in what they could learn and use from the world of sports. I sat in on some meetings and attended the final presentation and was allowed to ask and answer questions of the client. Big mistake.
I sat quiet as the students presented and as the client asked questions. But I noticed something missing in these discussions. They never used the word “Play.” It bothered me enough to finally say something, to point out the omission. I was ignored, even derided by the client. The students started squirming in their seats. So I asked the obvious question.
“Why are you interested in how sports could be used in business?”
I was unprepared for the answer, for the naked honesty (or was it ambition) the client showed.
“We just want to know if we can make more money,” he said.
I was stunned, which just showed my naivete. I was partly blindsided by this because nothing the students were presenting showed any data about how they could make money. They were simply ideas in a vacuum.
What was also clear to me was that no one in the room had ever played a game where something was on the line. I had. I had also worked with people whose livelihoods counted on play, demanded play everyday.
“There is a difference between work and play in the minds of a lot of a people. Play is voluntary. People get to choose what and how they play. And when they can’t, they quit the game. The power of play and therefore the power of sport comes from the inherent freedom,” I argued. That is what makes something a game. You can choose not to play. You play because you like the game.
We went on to have a discussion about this and I shared with them what I’d learned in my interviews and in my work. Almost every world class performer I interviewed used the words play and freedom, interchangeably at times. I tried explaining that play is not only the how, but often the why of the success of these people I interviewed.
I also explained that one of the greatest demotivators is when someone promises play and freedom to someone to get them to participate and then breaks that promise. How many kids each year walk away from organized sport because of this broken promise, when the play and freedom and choice is stifled or taken away? How many people do you know who had that coach or P. E. teacher whose authoritative voice still scares them as adults? How many kids don’t have fond memories of the old playground because the kids made fun of them, because they weren’t yet good enough to play? How scared are you of being chosen last?
I speak with some authority here because I’ve been on both sides of that fence. I’ve never played on a losing team. I was a good athlete as a kid, good enough in high school to win Player of the Year awards. I was also well known nationwide as my college coach’s Human Victory Cigar, the guy at the end of the bench that the home crowd cheered for in blowouts while one of my teammates was three-time National Player of the Year. It is this juxtaposition that drives my work. What happens when the play not only disappears from the game, but even worse, you begin to believe you don’t matter anymore.
This country is in a fragile place right now. Too many people feel like they don’t matter, not only to their government, but also to their fellow countrymen. They are scared not only of being chosen last, but also of not being chosen at all. Life feels like a game of musical chairs they cannot win and, even worse, is somehow rigged. Like the Little League kid who sees no chance of getting better, many will simply quit trying.
What’s this got to do with play? It’s pretty simple really. Without play, there are no games. The effectiveness of games comes from the power of play, of people playing. One of Nature’s gift to us– our need and ability to play. Some of the best games teach us to compete, to play to win, and when played well, to recover from failure and defeat by learning about ourselves, our gifts, and our shortcomings. When games lead only to differentiating between winners and losers, when they reward some and not others, they are not games because there is no play. When the lessons learned are that most of the players are not good enough to win or to contribute to the team’s success, people stop playing. Not only is it not whether you win or lose nor how you play the game, it is about whether or not the game itself is worth playing.
The reward found in any real game is play itself. Play allows us to be held accountable for our performance, but it also demands games that provide ways for us to improve, to learn, and to get better. Most important, when we play, we do not hand judgment of ourselves to other people. When we play, we want to know how we did, but then we want to know and learn how to be better. And while it helps to have coaches, it is even better to have good teammates.
If business is trying to capitalize on the gaming generation coming of age, it must also realize and acknowledge why so many kids disappeared from playgrounds and retreated to their couches in front of their flat screens. They wanted to play and feel free. Free to fail, to make mistakes, and to put in the hours required to get better. They wanted to play with their friends who had the same love of the game they had. And in these environments, trash talk is often part of the game as I learned playing on some of the best playgrounds in D. C.
If, however, we force people to play games they don’t want to play, that have no play in them, the trash talk becomes dangerous and destructive. I work with people who are world class at their chosen game and most of my work revolves around keeping play in their process. They don’t play to make money, but because as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Physical Genius they have found something that when they do it, it “on some profound, aesthetic level makes them happy.” It is how they feel when they play that is the most important reward. It is the motivation that leads to the long hours of practice.
In The Black Swan, Naseem Nicolas Taleeb writes that it is “unfortunate that the right strategy for our current environment may not offer internal rewards and positive feedback (meaning how to get better).” I suspect that games seem to be a desirable solution to this because people like playing games in environments in which they feel they can get better and grow.
He also writes about the “hedonic deficit,” which I have heard from thousands of people in more simple words. “I have done everything I was supposed to do, but my life doesn’t feel like I thought it would.” The promise of play undelivered leaving playgrounds abandoned.
A good friend who is a Grammy Award winning drummer probably said it best to me. When asked how he kept from burning out, he said it clearly.
“I don’t confuse what I do for money with what I would for free. I get paid to be away from my family and the bus trips and the dehydration and all the problems, but I play the drums for free.”
People will play for free if the game fits them. They will endure long hours. They will learn, and grow and get better. They will deal effectively with failure. They will hold themselves accountable. These are the compelling characteristics of play.
What they won’t do is play a game they are forced to play, no matter how much money you pay them. Tell them it is a job and that their reward is their compensation and they do it. Tell them what work they must do and how much you’ll pay them and they will show up. But promise someone that they will feel a certain way by playing a game and don’t deliver and they will walk away.
It is my belief that some businesses are trying to capitalize on the “gaming generation,” trying to profit from the assumption that gamers who grew up playing games will work best that way to the benefit of all. But the distinguishing characteristic about the kids of the gaming generations, of the snowboarders, is that they will walk away from “playing the game” so many previous generations played– the one built on politics and too often deceit and telling people in power what they want to hear. The gaming industry has it right. Listen to the gamers. Feel what they feel when they play and play well and you’ll understand how to make the game better, to make it more real to the players. Game developers get this and address their markets.
Employers need to understand that building business around games means more than listening to their customers. It means feeling what they feel and translating that into making the game better for as many players as possible.
It means creating games that people would play for free.